Team of the weak: Illinois
Each Friday, Bob Asmussen weighs in on college basketball.
Team of the Week
Somewhere, probably sitting in one of those cars he peddles, Shaquille O’Neal is smiling. His old school is relevant again.
Led by 29 points and nine rebounds from Johnny O’Bryant III, the Tigers upset No. 11 Kentucky on Tuesday night. Before the game, Kentucky coach John Calipari’s biggest concern was that the teams would be able to play. Despite the nasty weather that crippled much of the South, the Maravich Assembly Center was open for business. The game drew 6,000 brave Tigers fans, who had to deal with the elements. Thanks to the win, LSU improved to 4-3 in the SEC. Johnny Jones’ Tigers handed Kentucky its fifth loss of the season, all away from Lexington.
Team of the Weak
The problem with the six-game losing streak is that there is no apparent end coming. In Wednesday’s News-Gazette, the remaining games were broken down by Illinois’ chances to win. With the exception of the home game against Nebraska, all of them were on the iffy side. Or worse. This was not a good year for the Illini to be short of quality upperclassmen. This was not a good year to have to rely on freshmen. This was not a good year to have two critical offensive pieces (Rayvonte Rice and Tracy Abrams) suffer nagging injuries. No doubt the problems can be corrected eventually. But it might not happen until 2014-15. Help is on the way, both in the form of transfers and the incoming freshman class. Too bad they can’t be on the court now, when they are needed the most.
According to ESPN’s Joe Lunardi, the Wildcats are a solid overall No. 1 seed in the NCAA tournament. If they were to lose a game or two, Super Joe said, they are still in good shape for a No. 1 seed. The Wildcats had a decent win last week against Utah and then shut down Stanford in the final minutes of a three-point win. They don’t always wipe the floor with teams. Maybe Sean Miller is simply that polite. Or maybe the guys are saving themselves for a six-game romp in March and April. While H.I.U. certainly respects the Pac-12, the league is not playing at the level of the Big Ten or Big 12. Still good basketball, but not a threat to put eight or nine teams in the NCAA tournament. And that’s what it takes to reach superconference status. One very minor criticism of Arizona: superstar freshman Aaron Gordon is a wreck at the free throw line, hitting 45 percent. We know who to foul late in close games. Better call Rick Barry for some lessons.
Team Boeheim scored a 12-point win last week against Miami before Wednesday’s 10-point win against Wake Forest. Next comes the biggie, Saturday’s ACC showdown against Duke at the Carrier Dome. It still doesn’t seem right to have Duke and Syracuse in the same conference. Sorry to keep yapping about the change, but it bugs me. Is there any chance the Orange will go back to the Big East so we can feel normal again? Probably not. Syracuse freshman guard Tyler Ennis is getting more recognition each day. You don’t need to score 20 points a game to be considered a Player of the Year candidate. Those in the know like guys who are comfortable passing the ball, too. The Orange isn’t a great team statistically, which might be another sign of the coaching talents of Jim Boeheim. He doesn’t need five Carmelo Anthonys to win. But it helps.
3. Wichita State
What happened to the Shockers? After beating Drake and Illinois State by a combined 32 points last week, they won by just 12 against Loyola on Tuesday. That is 8-13 Loyola. Are Gregg Marshall’s guys turning soft? Did they forget to eat their Wheaties? Did they take the Ramblers lightly? Probably not the latter. Wichita State knows its status as a No. 1 seed is tenuous at best. History shows us that the NCAA tournament selection committee doesn’t like to reward Missouri Valley teams that don’t include Larry Bird. If the Shockers want to stay on the top line, they need to win every game. With gusto. Next time they play Loyola, they need to win by 30. The Shockers host Evansville on Saturday, and the Purple Aces are struggling to get to .500. Better be blowout city.
The Gators damaged Tennessee’s fading tournament hopes with a 26-point win last week before Thursday’s late game at dangerous Mississippi State. Florida got only 12 points and 22 minutes from star Casey Prater against the Vols. Credit Prater for not forcing shots. He was 5 of 7. Shot selection is part of the explanation for his 62 percent accuracy. A year ago, he hit 37 percent. And people wonder why the Gators are a threat to win the SEC. Start with the improved play of the senior. OK, you can give Billy D. credit, too. The guy does own a pair of national titles.
5. San Diego State
Steve Fisher only owns one national title. But he had two shots at a second, although those would have been gobbled up by NCAA sanctions. H.I.U. isn’t sure you can even mention the Fab Five in Ann Arbor without an NCAA investigator snooping around. But Fisher isn’t at Michigan anymore. Instead, he is in charge of the Fun Bunch, which calls San Diego home and rebounds like Michael Cage. The Aztecs are 13th in the nation in rebounding, which offsets the fact that they are near the bottom in assists. If you play at San Diego State, you better go get the ball yourself. After an overtime win last week at Utah State (never easy in Logan), the Aztecs host Colorado State on Saturday. Will not be close.
6. Michigan State
Just about the time you are going to give up on the Spartans, they go to Iowa and force another “T” out of the well-dressed coach. Michigan State has more owies than a nursery school. And they just keep coming. Who are these guys? Still waiting on a better explanation for Branden Dawson’s broken hand. “He hurt it punching a ... table. Yeah, a table. That’s the ticket.” Have to assume something not real friendly happened to cause the injury. But that is done now. The bigger issue for the Spartans is the return of Adreian Payne. If it happens any day now, as Tom Izzo promises, the Spartans are going to be impossible to beat. As the win against Iowa proved, Michigan State finds ways to pull games out. Uncanny. The Spartans step out of conference play Saturday for a game against Georgetown in New York. Apparently, the Big Ten wasn’t enough of a challenge for Izzo.
What don’t the Cardinals do well? They score. They rebound. They pass. And they shoot straight. And they play a high level of competition, including Thursday’s game against Cincinnati. The shame is that these two won’t be regular opponents starting next season. The Cardinals felt compelled to move to the ACC. Maybe the league will invite the Bearcats next. With Russ Smith leading the way, Louisville looks like a serious threat to repeat as national champion. The earlier loss to Memphis might hurt the Cardinals in the seedings, but they have a chance for revenge March 1. If Louisville wins the American, it will be a No. 2 seed at worst. And besides, horse player Rick Pitino likes to come from off the pace.
The streak of wins against Top 25 teams finally ended. But not with a loss. It ended when the Jayhawks met their obligation and played TCU. Squished them, too. Andrew Wiggins gets all the attention, and that’s fine. But the best freshman on the team might be Joel Embiid, who takes over games with his rebounding and defense. Bill Self must have a button he pushes every time he needs to replace another superstar. Coming off Wednesday’s win against Iowa State, Kansas travels to improving Texas on Saturday. Self better be aware of Rick Barnes, who has recovered from last season’s mess.
Speaking of recovering, nice bounceback by the Wildcats after the blowout home loss to Creighton. Villanova scored consecutive road wins at Marquette and Georgetown. It is like the loss didn’t even happen. Villanova remains in the Big East title race, and the hunch here is that it will win it. Villanova visits Creighton later in the season, and Jay Wright will remind his guys about the earlier score. The Wildcats visit Temple on Saturday. All of Philly will watch.
The only undefeated team in Big Ten play sure took on some heavyweights in the nonconference. Three of the four losses came against Arizona, Duke and Iowa State. The fourth came against Charlotte. We can’t explain everything. What a great job John Beilein has done after losing stars to the NBA and to injury. While there are no guarantees that the Wolverines will get back to the title game, a long run wouldn’t be a surprise. The confidence is bubbling. Winning games at Michigan State, even when it was depleted by injuries, will do that for you. Sunday’s game at Indiana will be a challenge. The Hoosiers are desperate for a big win.
Five more to watch
1. Oklahoma State — Lon Kruger and Oklahoma almost took Team of the Week with Monday’s win against the Cowboys. Oklahoma State continues to score in bunches. But recent losses to Kansas, Kansas State and Oklahoma have put it in jeopardy of falling far outside the Top 10. The Cowboys can recover some with a win Saturday against Baylor.
2. Kentucky — Another team that needs to start winning to stay alive in the conference race. The loss to LSU hurts. A lot. Saturday’s game against Missouri decides who gets to keep chasing Florida and which team needs to start to figure out the SEC tournament pairings.
3. Iowa — H.I.U. was all set to move the Hawkeyes way up in the Top 10. But the Hawkeyes couldn’t close the deal at home against Michigan State. Aaron White went missing against Michigan State, making 1 of 4 shots
in 37 minutes. Hitting 8 of 8 free throws wasn’t enough. Iowa tries to rebound with a Saturday game at Illinois. You have to like the Hawkeyes’ chances.
4. Saint Louis — Did anybody else notice the Billikens move into the Top 25 and to the top of the Atlantic 10? Didn’t think so. Jim Crews has continued the fine work started by the late Rick Majerus. Saint Louis doesn’t score a lot, but it shoots the ball well and plays solid defense. The only two losses came early in the season against Wisconsin and Wichita State. No shame there.
5. Duke — If Jabari Parker is playing, you should watch. He will be properly tested during Saturday’s game at Syracuse. Parker leads the team in scoring, rebounding and getting eyeballs to the TV set. After a mini-slump earlier in the season, he seems to be back to his old self.
Ranking the best leagues in the land:
LEAGUE LAST WEEK
1. Big 12 1
2. Big Ten 3
3. ACC 6
4. Pac-12 2
5. American 5
6. SEC 4
7. Big East 7
8. Atlantic 10 8
9. Missouri Valley 9
10. Mountain West 10
1. Doug McDermott, Creighton — The legend continues to grow. On Tuesday, the senior hit a three-pointer with 2.8 seconds left to give the Bluejays a three-point win against St. John’s. McDermott did so much more, scoring a season-high 39 points against the Red Storm. St. John’s coach Steve Lavin decided to let McDermott get his and concentrate on the rest of the Creighton players. The plan almost worked as the Red Storm(ed) back from an 18-point deficit in the second half to tie the game in the final minute. Clever.
2. Bryce Cotton, Providence — While we were napping, the Friars turned good. And it is in large part because of the work being done by the senior guard. Not only is he scoring 20.5 points per game, he is recording six assists and three rebounds per game.
3. Josh Davis, San Diego State — The Aztecs have two strong candidates for the award. One because of his floor play. And Davis because of his rebounding and defense. He is third in the nation with 11.6 rebounds per game. And he scores enough (8.9 ppg) to force opponents to pay attention.
Eight cities/regions are competing to host four men’s basketball Final Fours from 2017 to ’20. Hopefully, the folks making the choices will get it right. Here is some help. Start with an obvious choice: St. Louis. The building is pleasant, and you can’t beat the central location. Illinois fans have mostly good memories of the 2005 Final Four in St. Louis, except for the officiating. Great food, plenty of hotels and a city that doesn’t have much else going on during early April (Don’t go crazy, Cardinals fans, the games won’t interfere with your favorite team.) Of the remaining seven areas under consideration, H.I.U. likes them in this order: Indianapolis (easy access, great building), Minneapolis (Mall of America), New Orleans (yummy food), North Texas (Jerry Jones will be there), San Antonio (aging facility), Phoenix/Glendale (it’s the heat and the humidity) and Atlanta (can’t handle a little snow).
The upcoming McDonald’s All-American Game will have a strong Illinois flavor. State stars Jahlil Okafor and Cliff Alexander were selected for the game. No need to tell you that they won’t spend their college year in Illinois. Okafor is on his way to Duke, and Alexander signed with Kansas. Still, nice to see the state get recognized for its exceptional basketball talent.
Is it just H.I.U. or are more players than ever being suspended for the vague “violation of team rules.” Nebraska just booted its third-leading scorer, Deverell Biggs. With Nebraska short on talent, Biggs must have done something that coach Tim Miles simply couldn’t tolerate. Xavier suspended freshman Jalen Reynolds so he can concentrate on life outside of basketball. Seems like the coaches have less tolerance for guys who aren’t doing the right things away from the game. There is always another player ready to step in.